A plan to bring more reliable power to southwest Connecticut continues to generate controversy after some officials in affected towns found out their proposal to put 300-foot buffers on either side of new 345-kilovolt transmission lines would necessitate the taking of about 740 buildings – mostly houses – by eminent domain.

The United Illuminating Co. and The Connecticut Light & Power Co. have been working on plans for about two years to put the line between Middletown and Norwalk. The line would help provide more reliable power to southwest Connecticut, where power transmission currently does not meet national reliability standards.

“Because southwest Connecticut’s transmission system serving that quadrant no longer meets reliability standards [we need to add more capability],” said Marcia Wellman, spokeswoman for United Illuminating.

But residents and officials in some New Haven County communities, where the $600 million plan calls for the power lines to be above ground, are concerned about possible health risks from exposure to electric and magnetic fields, which are produced wherever electricity is in use or transmitted.

“Our bottom-line concern … is about the potential health effects,” said Amey Marrella, first selectman of Woodbridge, one of the towns where the power companies hope to install the line.

Some research has shown that extended periods of exposure to high-level electric and magnetic fields can possibly cause childhood leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia in adults who work around the fields, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

The study, which was conducted in 1999, concluded that exposure to electric and magnetic fields “cannot be recognized as entirely safe because of weak scientific evidence that exposure may pose a leukemia hazard.”

But because nearly everyone in the United States is routinely exposed to the fields, the study recommended passive regulatory action.

The Connecticut Legislature took that into account and last June passed a bill that allows the Connecticut Siting Council – the body that approves or denies requests for changes to services – the power to demand a buffer zone around some high-voltage power lines.

After the bill was passed, municipal officials from towns where the new lines would run above ground came before the Siting Council and asked it to impose a 300-foot buffer zone. The council, in turn, asked the utility companies to find out if that plan was feasible, according to Derek Phelps, the council’s executive director.

“I think it’s fair to characterize it as merely a homework assignment,” Phelps said.

Health Concerns

The southwestern quadrant of the state – which includes Fairfield and New Haven counties – is now served by 115-kilovolt lines, according to the power companies’ plan. It is the only area in the region not served by 345-kilovolt transmission lines.

The companies plan to install the lines in the existing rights-of-way, where power lines already exist, Wellman said. The plan calls for the lines to be above ground for 45 miles, but buried beneath the streets of Milford, Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Westport and Norwalk, a stretch of 24 miles. The above-ground lines will be supported by H-frames and poles with heights between 80 and 130 feet, according to the companies’ plan.

The Siting Council is not required to impose buffer zones beyond the existing rights of way, Wellman said, but in those towns where the lines would be above ground, officials want to be sure their residents aren’t affected by electric and magnetic fields. In some places, the rights of way themselves are more than 150 feet wide, Wellman said.

In Woodbridge, a town of about 10,000 residents that is located northwest of New Haven, there is a high concentration of children living along the power lines, Marrella said. There are about 80 homes, a school and a Jewish community center and synagogue that often hold programs for children, she said. Many in the community are concerned about possible health effects.

“This is a health-and-safety issue,” Marrella said.

There are other issues, as well. Woodbridge has dedicated a lot of resources to preserving open space and the possibility of negating possible effects of electric and magnetic fields by raising the height of the towers doesn’t appeal to the town, either. Taller towers would mean bigger foundations for the tower, Marrella said, and could have an impact on nearby wetlands.

Town officials in Orange, a town of about 13,000 just south of Woodbridge, have similar concerns.

“The first concern was the height of the tower,” said First Selectman Mitchell Goldblatt.

That was followed by the realization that electric and magnetic field levels could pose a health concern, he said. Those concerns led to lobbying the Legislature for the new law allowing buffer zones, but the towns involved are now caught in a Catch-22.

“It’s a rock and a hard place,” Goldblatt said.

If the council imposes 300-foot buffer zones, it will have to take 222 buildings in Orange by eminent domain, Goldblatt said.

Town officials from all the affected communities have been working together, Marrella said. They understand the need for the new power lines, but want to make sure they don’t affect public health and safety, she said.

“We have been seeking a regional solution,” she said. “This is not a NIMBY issue.”

The best solution would be to put the entire line underground, Marrella said. The electric and magnetic fields are not as strong when lines are buried, she said. Putting the lines underground would solve the health and environmental problems and wouldn’t require taking homes, Goldblatt said.

“If we would be able to put the lines underground, all three issues would go away,” he said.

But that is likely impossible, Wellman said. Underground cable interacts with the system differently than overhead wire, she said. The more underground cable there is in a system, the more complications can negatively affect reliability and operability in the entire system.

“We do not believe [putting the entire line underground] is technically feasible,” Wellman said.

But the utility companies could mitigate the electric and magnetic fields in a different way, she said. An engineering design called “split phasing” could help. That design places wires in certain places and allows their electric and magnetic fields to cancel out each other, Wellman said.

The Siting Council is still several months away from deciding how to handle the new power lines, Phelps said.

“At this point … I think it will be somewhere after the first of the year,” he said.

Wellman stressed that the plans are not yet cut and dried.

“It’s very, very premature to be talking about the necessity to take any homes,” she said. “Certainly, absolutely no decisions have been made.”